Israel’s options in Gaza

In launching airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, Israel has exercised its right to self-defense. Since the collapse Dec. 19 of a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian movement that controls the territory, residents of southern Israel have been terrorized by cross-border rocket attacks. When the Bush administration sympathized with Israel’s response to that provocation, it wasn’t simply catering to pro-Israel sentiments in this country; it was placing blame where it belongs.

Still, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert must have expected, an air campaign aimed at tunnels and rocket batteries has killed dozens of innocent civilians while inviting -- at least in the short term -- more attacks on Israel than occurred before the operation. The longer this campaign goes on, the more disproportionate Israel’s actions will seem. Israel must desist as soon as it has neutralized the threat of rocket attacks, either through its own actions or as the result of a new and more robust cease-fire of the kind being pursued by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Israeli leaders have sent mixed signals about whether the country has larger ambitions. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has spoken of an “all-out war against Hamas and its kind,” while other officials have suggested that the campaign aims only to neutralize Hamas’ capacity to threaten Israeli civilians. Aside from the additional carnage it would cause, an attempt to uproot Hamas would damage the already moribund peace process -- and without removing Hamas from the political equation.

When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, routing Palestinians who had established a state within a state, some Israelis thought the Palestine Liberation Organization would expire. In fact, even in exile, PLO leader Yasser Arafat retained the loyalty of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Eventually, after years of exasperating equivocation, Arafat recognized the reality of the Jewish state.

Might Hamas undergo a similar evolution? Officially, the movement refuses to acknowledge Israel’s legitimacy (much as the PLO once did), offering Israel only a hudna, or 10-year truce. But some Hamas officials have suggested that the group would agree to plans that implicitly recognize Israel’s right to exist, such as a Saudi Arabian initiative calling for Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders.

Until Hamas explicitly recognizes Israel and renounces terrorism, it cannot be Israel’s partner in negotiations on a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the past, however, Israel pragmatically has agreed through intermediaries to practice restraint if Hamas did. If, as the result of this operation, a more reliable cease-fire can be negotiated, Israel should consider that a victory.